Apparently Costa Rica is home to over 1,200 different species of orchid and in the Monteverde area, you can find over a third of these. There are orchids that only bloom for a single day; tiny fern orchids that grow right on the tips of fern leaves; orchids that only “open” to receive rain then close tight again; miniscule pygmy orchids as well as the more familiar (to UK shoppers at least) hybrid orchids that flower for half a year.
Armed with Sherlock Holmes style magnifying glasses we were guided round an orchid garden and got to see a huge amount of different varieties, some of which were so tiny, it was hard to see how they survived. Apparently 80% of natural orchids around the world are miniature. Most orchids don’t need soil really and quite happily grow in nooks and crannies on other trees (most definitely not as a parasite but as a beautiful epiphyte: a bit like a room-mate co-existing in harmony). Just as well we had a guide pointing out the different flowers to us; when we retraced our steps at the end of our tour to take some more photos, we found it almost impossible to identify the different flowers: just where was the “Tiger” orchid or the “Angel” one. Gone, to the untrained observer!
On a less harmonious note, we were also shown the “spider” orchid. This type of orchid is pollinated by the tarantula hawk which is a spider wasp that hunts tarantulas. The female uses her sting to paralyse her prey; she then lays a single egg on the spider which hatches to larva which creates a small hole in the still-living tarantula’s abdomen which it then enters and starts feeding on the spider, avoiding its vital organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive. Finally, the larva turns into a wasp which finally leaves the spider and at some point, will pollinate the “spider” orchid.
L: Tarantula hawk (wasp); M: Hybrid orchids; R: a variety of miniature orchid
And then there are the fig stranglers. Costa Rica is home to over 80 types of fig tree, about half of which again can be found in the verdant Monteverde cloud forest region. Of these fig trees, 10 are fig stranglers. These start off as a single seed left on another tree by a bird, bat or monkey which then grows as another epiphyte. As the fig grows, its long strong roots develop and start growing round the host tree, reaching the ground and entering the soil. As more roots do this, the original host tree is enclosed in a strangling latticework, ultimately creating a near complete sheath around the trunk. The host tree has to compete with the fig tree for light and nutrients but it’s a battle it loses and will eventually die, rotting away leaving only the beautiful hollow lattice work of the strangling fig roots. Apparently once the process has started, that’s it and there is no reversal. Cruel perhaps but all part of Mother Nature’s cycle.
L and M: Strangling Fig in action; R: Fig wasps
We have also learned about the fruits of some of these trees too. Many varieties of fig have their own individual species of wasps that enter the heart of the fruit (essentially its flower albeit it is on the inside of the fruit). The female wasp lays her eggs and also pollinates some of the flowers on the inside: once this has been done, this is the end of her short life. Once the eggs hatch and develop into larvae, the males immediately mate with the females and also make a hole for those females to escape from the fig. Job done, the males fall out of the fig dead. The females then find their way out, picking up pollen as they go after which they fly to another tree of the same species, where they deposit their eggs and the cycle begins again. The life span of the female fig wasp is about 36 hours in total.